For over twenty-five years, the Slim Buttes Agricultural Development Project has enabled Oglala Lakota Sioux families across Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to prepare and maintain gardens to augment their diets with fresh organic produce.
Life expectancy on Pine Ridge (pop. 40,000) is some twenty years shorter than the national average for multiple reasons, including persistent poverty and food insecurity. On Pine Ridge, many homes are without running water, sewers or electricity. For them, community gardens provide not only entertainment, but also exercise, fresh food and the pride that comes with working to provide for loved ones. The activity from gardening and the fresh food produced help fight obesity and diabetes, problems that afflict American Indians at rates above national averages. Access to affordable fresh vegetables is literally life-saving.
The 500 family gardens on the Pine Ridge Reservation feed 3,800 people, about 10 percent of the population. Before the community gardens, residents hadn’t eaten fresh fruits and vegetables in decades. Now, families grow tomatoes, potatoes, beets, carrots, turnips, beans, melons, peppers, lettuce, spinach, squash, artichokes and corn.
Milo tending to seedlings in the SBAg greenhouse.
Malnutrition is a huge issue in American Indian communities. Because of poverty and geographic isolation, many Indian people do not have access to high quality grocery stores and fresh fruits and vegetables. As a result, food scarcity, obesity and diabetes have become epidemics in Indian Country. Organic gardens and food programs strive to tackle malnutrition by providing healthy meals and fresh produce to Indian children and families. The project helps to establish community gardens, household gardens, and communal greenhouse programs. The project also integrates educational and cultural aspects, teaching the importance of healthy eating, how to improve food choices, and how to plant traditional gardens. These efforts have inspired many Native children to eat healthier and to be aware of what they are putting into their bodies on a daily basis.
The project provides tractor services for garden tilling, seedlings, seeds, advice and tools in response to applications from local residents. Many became interested by listening to the project’s weekly radio show “Talking of Things Growing” on KILI FM. Over the years, the project has grown into all nine Pine Ridge reservation districts.
For Oglalas, eating fresh, organic produce will mean better health. It’s a declaration of sovereignty, according to Steve Hernandez, a tribal member and a former educator for South Dakota State University’s extension service. And it’s starkly practical as well, he says: “Most of our food is trucked in. If there’s bad weather—common on the Plains—it doesn’t get through.”
In an ordinary growing season on the Northern Plains, indeed during an ordinary week, a gardener may face drought, grasshoppers, tornadoes, thunderstorms, hail, ceramic-hard soil and raccoons and other four-legged raiders. Then there’s the heat, which is worsening as the planet heats up. “Between June and August last year, there were only five days below 95 degrees,” recalled Tom Cook, founder of the project. “I have watched the climate change.”
Founder Tom Cook and Joe American Horse
At Slim Buttes, gardeners amend the soil with needed nutrients, as they might anywhere, says Milo Yellow Hair, manager of the project. But they also pray: “Prayer is a little-understood energy source. Every day, everything we do coalesces the forces of the universe into our soil.”
“Gardens provide liveliness, fun and beauty, in addition to fruits and vegetables,” says Mr. Schoch, of Old West Gypsy Market: “Gardens are gathering places. They make the community a nice place.”
Teaching youths is the key. “They can gain an understanding of how food moves, the origin of a French fry,” he said.
Farming hasn’t come easy, he said, but it’s in his Lakota blood to make a healthy life with what he has been given. “If it’s not good for farming,” he said, sweeping his hand across the horizon, “then it’s up to us to take the soil and make something work.”
One of the goals of the SBAg is to help families improve the soil on their land. In the Sand Hills, the soil is very sandy. Otherwise, the soil is full of clay which turns to “gumbo” when it rains. In 1997, Tom received an EPA Environmental Justice/ Pollution Prevention in Agriculture grant for $30,000 which allowed him to deliver manure to gardens rather than families using chemical fertilizers. SBAg has also more recently been promoting biodynamics as a means of promoting soil and plant health. Biodynamics is a spiritual-ethical-ecological approach to agriculture, food production and nutrition first articulated in 1924, based on the spiritual insights and practical suggestions of the Austrian writer, educator and social activist Rudolph Steiner. Biodynamic farmers also use the Maria Thun calendar to determine the optimum zodiac and moon phases for planting root, flower, leaf, and fruit crops. Tom and Milo developed an indigenous version of biodynamics, combining Lakota sweat lodge ritual and indigenous perspective that the particles of ingredients in soil and plants are alive and sentient. Milo has found that by utilizing biodynamic methods and channeling energy into his garden, he has been able to increase the amount of produce without having to increase the number of plants he’s putting in his garden.
The growing season in South Dakota is challenging—it can be as many as 120 days, but SBAg tries to focus on crops that can produce in 90 days. The last frost of the year is usually in early-mid May, and the first frost of the season is usually mid-September. In 2013, they received 20 inches of snow in October, and it didn’t stop snowing until May 8th. SBAg starts each season in the greenhouse, raising 19,000 seedlings that will be distributed to gardeners, with some kept on site to be grown in the hoop house and the base garden. While the seeds (most of which are provided by Plenty International) are sprouting in the greenhouse, in order to get everyone excited about the prospect of the next planting season, Tom and Milo host an 8 week hour-long radio show every Monday in April and May in which they talk about gardening techniques and work. As Milo told us, “We have to not be afraid to get our hands dirty, we should not be afraid to work, and we should not be afraid to pray. And once we do all of these types of things, then you have a very good chance of having a successful crop.” He similarly encourages the residents of Pine Ridge.
Brady Hankins, who lives part time on the property of the Slim Buttes Agriculture Project on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in western South Dakota, checks tomato plants. Kayla Gahagan
Milo expressed that he came to the project not just to help provide food and water to community members, but to strengthen the community through education. “I come to realize that food was being used as a weapon, and in order for us to be sovereign we have to always ask ourselves as indigenous people, if we are truly sovereign, how come we are not feeding ourselves? Why are we always dependent on somebody else to give us our food?” The SBAg works to provide people with the education and resources to feed themselves. Pine Ridge is a place known for its challenges: there’s more than 80% unemployment and 49% of residents live below the poverty line (per capita income is under $7,000). But this is also an area that has maintained its cultural and spiritual traditions against harsh odds.
Milo Yellow Hair, the manager of the project, checks on crops near the organization’s main greenhouse early in the summer. Kayla Gahagan
While some point to farming as antithetical to the traditional Lakota way of life, others see farming and gardening as the best option for community self sufficiency. According to SBAg Program Manager Milo Yellow Hair, “I get a lot of flack about trying to turn Lakotas from nomads into farmers, but it’s not so much that we’re going to be farmers it’s just that we try to avoid the situation where we are subject to somebody else’s food sources. We need to feed ourselves. Even if we start out with just one plant and over the course of time, as we have seen, people start adding their own fruits and vegetables and root products and it’s a beautiful way to go… I find myself doing more and more and more of that, which allows me to become more sovereign and to create less of need and dependency on the existing society for these kinds of things.”
Pine Ridge Gardeners